Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Shifting Demographic: Magellan vs. GPS

Many of the symptoms of MMOs' degradation from true persistent worlds to slot-machine grindfests came about gradually through the insidious "slippery slope" of focus groups, pandering to the audience's lowest common denominator and the almighty cost-cut. Instances remove many headaches so you get more and more of them until the game world becomes only a transit hub. PvP is too stressful so it gets increasingly sidelined until segregated into small-scale dick-measuring "arenas". Large group projects require coordination and planning so to pander to the mindless glut of shortsighted leet-kiddies, raids get reduced in size and city-building is replaced with instanced housing. Etceteree, etceterah.

However, one dramatic nosedive in quality was instantly evident: quest markers. I would like you to take a trip through your best memories of brave new digitized worlds. You don't have to go as far back as the first cRPGs. Just as far back as 2002, while Ultima Online was still establishing the MMO genre and RPGs in general were an ambitious, artsy, nerdy pursuit. Remember this?
Is this your house? Did you dig it into that sea-shore just yesterday? Can you tell me how to get to it?
This is an RPG. This is a world. It's Morrowind, the title which established the Elder Scrolls series as a major reference point in computer games and turned Bethesda Softworks from peddlers of dime-a-dozen sports games into an authority on RPGs. Now, though MMOs have lain dead and buried since 2004-5, one can find a fair representation of what persistent online worlds were to have become by taking a look at relatively freeform open-world single-player games like the Elder Scrolls, Mount and Blade, STALKER and so forth. Play a campaign of M&B and imagine that every soldier, every bandit and every mercenary is another player, all going about their lives, choosing their own adventures which affect the same world in which you're trying to adventure. Imagine you and another player are both fighting over the corpse of a mutant or daedra, not because you were told to kill it by an NPC but because you're attentively watching the markets and you both had the same idea to sell its heart back in town. A true multiplayer incarnation of these games (ESO does not count, as it is a pathetically by-the-numbers WoW-clone) would be the necessary starting point for true MMOs.

Besides other details, you'll notice their minimalist, unobtrusive interface which excludes most types of on-screen overlays. No floating names, no giant arrows pointing to your objective, no giant blobs on your map telling you exactly where the bunnies you need to skin are hiding. Quest instructions in such a game might run something like "cross the bridge to fort Moonmoth then hang a right and follow the Foyada Mamaea south until you pass the ruins, then look for the bandit cave on your right."
The problem is that at some point players started wailing that actually reading directions and finding the map objects fitting those names and descriptions is just too durn haaaaard. Of course, for once we cannot lay the blame entirely at the game industry's feet. Ever since the advent of on-board GPS for cars and especially that condescending bitch, Siri, humans in general are becoming less and less spatially aware. If people have become utterly dependent on being told where they want to eat and when and how many steps to take to get there and TURN! RIGHT! NOW! then can we really ask them to be more aware and adventurous in their virtual selves?

Why, yes, yes we can. The real world is the one you're forced to live in. A game is where you choose to be. Your virtual self can be what your real self cannot. So be, among others things, Magellan. Be Marco Polo. Be Erik the Red.
Which of those ships is yours? Will it be there tomorrow? What if you could choose where to sail?

Ah, but you can't, can you? If you were to choose to turn off the gigantic map-overlay quest markers in a modern MMO, you'd find you have no other means by which to find your objective. Mission descriptions have become so abstract as to amount merely to some free-verse poetry loosely based on your current activity, since no-one reads them anyway since no-one-needs them since, you guessed it, we have quest markers! How delightfully circular. Which is also how our path ends up looking if you ever try working things out on your own. Modern online games are not meant for those with the brainpower to read a map. They are not made for those who can count the number of houses down a street. Developers assume their customers function only on the basest animalistic visual cues, following the gigantic floating instructions right in front of them without any ability to plan ahead. Is that you?

Well, yes, that is most of you. You really are that stupid. I've heard others remark (and must agree) that even vanilla WoW, the promising traitor of 2004, would be considered horridly difficult and complicated by today's gamers' standards. Yet that is not entirely true. When I first encountered a quest overlay for a game map in Warhammer Online, many of us chafed at being so narrowly, domineeringly herded from objective to objective. Map markers are a set of blinders reducing your scope from the game world as a whole to only the particular timesink the developers have set before you - which is all well and good when you're the developer, reducing costs by not developing a world and only cranking out sequential timesinks. Not so much when you're the customer being treated like cattle. WAR, like WoW before it and Rift after it, started hemorrhaging old subscribers at an astounding pace, as they got replaced by the new guard, players who really were stupid enough to enjoy the simplified lack-of-content which disgusted us, the mass market.

So where did the old guard go? My guess would be single-player games. Elder Scrolls or Fallout games still sell, as does Mount and Blade. Paradoxically, though the chief advantage of multiplayer games is the less predictable behavior patterns of players as compared to AI, MMO gameplay became so restrictively predictable that we were forced to backpedal in order to find games which offer that thrill of discovery.

It is true that many aspects of single-player exploration and discovery cannot transfer into a multiplayer medium. For one thing, nothing stays secret for long in a multiplayer game. Monkeys talk. Fairness is also a much greater consideration so many interesting "jackpot!" types of discoveries cannot be implemented in an MMO. However, none of this implies the current paradigm of level-grinding, instance farming and blinders for all. Crucially, MMOs must move away from the quest-chain, narrative model of gameplay toward truly open worlds. Not only should there be no quest markers but by and large there should be no quests. In a world where players' interaction is the main point, handing out specific instructions as to what to do next is directly counterproductive. Sorry, can't join you to go hunt dire tapirs at the moment, I want this NPC to tell me what a good boy I am for killing ten dire wallabies by myself. This is not multiplayer...

Exploration in a multiplayer game takes a different meaning than in single-player. It cannot simply be a matter of finding a mountain. As long as it is static, that information will be displayed in online guides for anyone to read as soon as you implement it. The key is to keep patterns shifting. Yes, the sea-shore in my Morrowind screenshot might always be there... but the cave might not. What if someone just crafted that mine? What if someone just planted that tree? What if it collapses? The landscape must change. The easiest way to accomplish this is by constantly altering monster populations and crafting resource deposits. Player activity and construction will follow such opportunities, altering that same landscape even further. More dramatically, game terrain could be designed with mutability in mind. What if Mount Doom were to erupt? It's been known to happen.

There is no reason why you cannot have these things, gamers, except the industry's self-enforced limitation, its complacency. Most human beings being troglodytic apes who want to be given the simplest route and simply be told they're amazing, this is the mentality to which developers have marketed. The big money is in catering to those too stupid to read a map... yet the big money is already partitioned by the big players. There are no slices left in that pie. However, you'll find quite a few of us, those who wanted open-world games and who have now retreated offline, those who hyped Morrowind for its freedom and sense of wonder but were disgusted at ESO's "fetch dis'n'dat" routine, those you can find pretending to be Erik the Red offline, who would gladly pay for the alternative. Won't someone please make a little money off us?

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